CALGARY, ALBERTA, FEB. 17 -- Pirmin Zurbriggen proved human today, just another skier careening down Mount Allan on his backside.

Zurbriggen, the best hope for multiple Olympic medals since Ingemar Stenmark in 1980, led an international pack of 30 skiers going into the last run of the two-day men's Alpine combined event.

But pressure from a relative unknown, Austrian Hubert Strolz, forced him to push hard on his final slalom run, and halfway down the course the Swiss superstar caught a gate with his right ski and went sprawling out of the race.

The untimely fall cleared the way for Strolz, fellow Austrian Bernhard Gstrein and Swiss Paul Accola to finish 1-2-3 in the event, which is in its Olympic incarnation.

And it meant Zurbriggen, who some expected to win three, four or even five gold medals here, must wait until Sunday's super giant slalom to add to the downhill gold he won Monday, and can no longer win all five.

Zurbriggen's Swiss coaches advised him before his second run today that he needed only to stay within two seconds of second-place Strolz's time to win the gold.

But Strolz had finished a fast run just ahead of Zurbriggen's start and Zurbriggen, in response, skied hard out of the gate, seemingly well in control.

Suddenly disaster struck halfway down the warm, breezy slope.

"I was right on my skis," said a puzzled Zurbriggen later. "Perhaps I was a little near the gate. I can't really explain. It was just bad luck."

Slalom racers these days smash the spring-loaded gates aside with padded forearms and shins like road warriors, but Zurbriggen appeared to hit a gate lower and harder than usual midway down the hill, upsetting his balance.

He was fighting to regain control when he straddled a subsequent gate and tumbled.

After the fall he stared in shock up the course at the gate that had done him in.

"I was really surprised because I ticked the sticks, one of the gates, between my legs," he said.

Zurbriggen had won Tuesday's downhill, the first portion of the combined, by nearly half a second and tied for sixth in the first slalom run today, which put him well ahead in the overall standings going into the second slalom run.

The combined event adds the times from all three races, with the downhill counting for about 60 percent of the final total.

Zurbriggen said he was confident starting his second run. "Sure, I'm a little disappointed," he said afterward, "because normally I can win this race.

"It was no great thing for me to win here because I had the advantage of the other guys."

Strolz agreed wholeheartedly. The 25-year-old giant-slalom specialist, who won his first World Cup event last month in his native Austria, said he never expected to take the gold.

"I would have been satisfied with the silver behind Pirmin," he said. "It's a shame he didn't come down {to the finish} because we're very good friends."

Strolz said he watched Zurbriggen's run and was not surprised by the leader's aggressiveness. "If you ski too relaxed you make small mistakes," he said. "So it's better to go hard."

The turnaround shocked observers in the sparse crowd and left Sports Illustrated reporter William Oscar Johnson muttering, "There goes my cover." But competitors said it was about par for the course in a tight slalom race.

"It can happen to anyone," said Norwegian racer Finn Jagge. "There are 60 gates. You can crash {into} any of them."

Jagge said Zurbriggen looked "a little nervous before the start. In fact I said I didn't think he was going to finish."

But Zurbriggen's teammate, Bernhard Fahner, said it wasn't nerves that tripped up his countryman. "He knew he could leave two seconds behind Strolz and still win. But with that, you still have to go hard. In slalom, you can't try to go slow or you lose too much."

Fahner, watching from the top, said Zurbriggen skied the first third of the course "very well. And then . . . it just happened."

Zurbriggen, who specializes in downhill, giant slalom and super giant slalom, was as close to out of his element in slalom as he gets on racing skis.

He has not been training for slalom, where he rates 12th in World Cup standings, and it may have cost him.

"He's been running so much downhill," said U.S. team member Bob Ormsby, "and you really have to train in an event a lot to be comfortable."

In any case, his failure brought into the limelight a charmingly unpretentious new champion, Strolz, a policeman whose interests in the offseason run to beekeeping and honey-collecting and who is said to be fearless wading into an occupied hive.

"He fears the bees less than winning a race," a teammate once said of Strolz, who finished second or third 14 times before finally winning the combined downhill/slalom at the World Cup stop in Bad Klein-kirchheim last month.

Now it may be time for the world to start fearing Strolz.

"All it needs is for him to win an event," said veteran slalom specialist Stenmark. "Then he will be very difficult to beat."